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Police Consent Decrees Have Faced—And Withstood—Court Challenges

Attorney General Eric Holder speaks, with Mayor Frank Jackson, far left, and U.S. Attorney Steven Dettelbach.
Attorney General Eric Holder speaks, with Mayor Frank Jackson, far left, and U.S. Attorney Steven Dettelbach.

by Nick Castele

Civil rights groups this week asked a federal judge for changes to Cleveland’s police reform agreement—walking a path that's been trod by groups in other places where police have fallen under federal scrunity. 

Several big cities that have reached settlements with the Justice Department over police use of force have seen those agreements challenged, questioned or appealed.

In Albuquerque, New Mexico, before approving the settlement, a federal judge heard arguments from civil rights groups and the police union. The union later sued over the proposed process for investigating uses of force, among other provisions.

The judge overruled those objections. He wrote that although criticisms from the union and other groups were valuable, the agreement on the whole was fair and reasonable. He approved it this June

Seattle’s community police commission filed friend-of-the-court briefs asking for changes to the use of force policies. That issue hasn’t been resolved yet. Dozens of Seattle police officers also sued, saying the consent decree’s new use of force policy was unconstitutional. Their lawsuit was denied, but is pending appeal.

In New Orleans, the city tried to nix the agreement altogether. But a federal appeals court struck down that effort. Since then, the city has tried to amend the decree, with some success.

In each of these cities, the cases have played out in ways unique to local circumstances, but the police reform agreements have largely held up, with some changes along the way.

Nick Castele was a senior reporter covering politics and government for Ideastream Public Media. He worked as a reporter for Ideastream from 2012-2022.